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The Cinematic History of A Christmas Carol: The Many Adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Classic Ghost Story

Published by Kylee Sorgatz

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The director Robert Zemeckis, best known for the Back to the Future Trilogy, is returning to the ‘performance capture’ technique he pioneered with Tom Hanks in The Polar Express to make another seasonal film, this time turning his attention to the famous tale of spirits and redemption, A Christmas Carol. The Dickens short story became synonymous with Christmas within the writers own lifetime, and the word ‘Scrooge’ has entered the dictionary. The story has always provided rich pickings for television and film adaptations, with everybody from Blackadder to Barbie retelling the tale.

An Innovative New Medium for A Christmas Carol

The Zemeckis version stars Jim Carrey, with the versatile comedian appearing not only as Scrooge, but also as the spirits of Christmases past, present and yet to come. The few remaining roles are ably taken by other talented actors, such as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Zemeckis’s old collaborator, Michael J Fox. Carrey films can be hit or miss, and Zemeckis fell some way short of making a Christmas classic with The Polar Express, but overall both have strong track records, this, along with the strong supporting cast, should guarantee an entertaining movie. But they may have a hard time emulating the success of previous adaptations of the magical tale.

The story first found its way into cinemas more than a century ago, when film itself was an innovative new medium, and ‘performance capture’ beyond comprehension. Short films appeared in 1901, 1908 and 1914, the latter starring Charles Rock as Scrooge. However, it was not until much later that cinema produced a truly worthy tribute to the beloved book. At least four further versions appeared before the 1938 interpretation of A Christmas Carol captured the essence of the story. Reginald Owen played Scrooge, with Gene and Kathleen Lockhart appearing as the Cratchit’s in a film which still resonates today.

Memorable Movie Versions of A Christmas Carol


The 1938 version could have proved hard to top, but in fact it was managed relatively quickly. Just thirteen years later Scrooge (1951) starred Alastair Sim as the miser, and featured George Cole as the young Ebenezer. Sim’s superb portrayal of Scrooge, before, during and after his transformation helped to make the film an enduring classic, and Scrooge is still arguably the best adaptation of the tale.

The next memorable appearance for the story on the big screen was also called Scrooge, but this 1970 film was a musical adaptation of the tale, and starred the legendary Albert Finney in the title role. Following giants such as Sim and Finney was going to be no easy task, and indeed with one notable exception, no actor has appeared on screen in a movie playing Ebenezer Scrooge since. Of course, that does not mean there have not been more versions of the story. Bill Murray took the lead role in the 1988 film Scrooged, a modern telling of the story in which the three spirits visit a cynical television executive named Frank Cross. More recently Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) kept the theme of the story, but left out the Christmas element, as Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner starred in a romantic comedy.

Assorted Animators and Puppeteers Take on A Christmas Carol

There have also been numerous animated interpretations. In 1983 Disney released Mickey’s Christmas Carol, featuring characters from their other popular cartoons and films acting out the familiar plot. Another animation followed in 1994, before a 1997 version which starred Tim Curry and featured Whoopi Goldberg as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Perhaps the best animated effort however came in 2001 with A Christmas Carol: The Movie. The film featured Simon Callow as Charles Dickens relating his own famous tale, which is then shown in animation, with Callow voicing Scrooge. Although the plot was slightly altered, the essence of the story remained intact, and the themes and evocative message were played out excellently by a supporting voice cast which included Kate Winslet, Nicholas Cage and the incomparable Michael Gambon.

Good though this version is however, it fails to reach the heights of the wonderful The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Easily the best of the Muppet movies, this film genuinely reaches cinematic heights, with the comedy, the music and storytelling all first rate. Michael Caine – the notable exception alluded to above – is a convincing and moving Scrooge amid the comedy and pathos of the furry supporting cast. Muppet performers Frank Oz, Dave Goelz et al have their finest hour under the direction of Brian Henson, and as a light-hearted – yet largely accurate – version of the story, it is hard to see how The Muppet Christmas Carol could be bettered. The final words, provided by Gonzo playing Charles Dickens, and encouraging viewers to go and read the book, should endear the film even to those who might otherwise frown at its frivolity.

The list of great Scrooge’s is formidable then: Reginald Owen, Alastair Sim, Albert Finney, Simon Callow, Michael Caine. Even Bill Murray, while he may lack the aura of some of these names, is undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s finest comedians. Jim Carrey has set himself a hard task indeed in seeking to join such company.

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